Everything you ever wanted to know about guitar fret wire
This article is the result of an email I received.
An email came in specifically asking me what I thought about guitar fret wire concerning whether I prefer nickel/silver or stainless steel, what size I prefer and why.
I replied with a detailed answer (and he replied in kind with a donation which I very much appreciated,) and this is most of what I said in that reply since it will be of use to anyone trying to figure out what fret wire to with and why.
Most off-the-shelf guitars use nickel/silver fret wire
"Off-the-shelf" in this context means "guitars your find in the guitar store." Unless you specifically go looking for stainless steel frets (ordinarily reserved for higher-priced guitars,) the vast majority of the time you'll end up with nickel/silver.
Why is nickel/silver so common? Easy answer: Cheaper to source.
Compare nickel/silver to stainless steel and the price goes up a bit with stainless steel. Not a ridiculous amount, but for guitar companies who mass-produce instruments, every penny counts, so the cheaper stuff is used.
Common fret wire sizes
(To the best of my knowledge, these are Dunlop-specific wire model numbers.)
- 6230 - Small frets for vintage Fender
- 6130 - Medium Jumbo (most Squier, Epiphone and Gibson guitars)
- 6105 - Narrow/Tall
- 6150 - Wide/Tall (Fender American necks usually use this)
- 6100 - Big wire (Usually found on Ibanez necks)
- SS6230 - Small frets for vintage Fender
- SS6105 - Narrow/Tall
- SS6150 - Jumbo (Fender American necks)
- SS6100 - Big wire (Usually found on Ibanez necks)
Which is the better material?
Neither is better than the other. Which to choose depends on how fast you wreck frets.
At the time I write this, I'm having my first guitar, an '89 Squier II Stratocaster, refretted among other things. I specifically instructed the luthier to use stainless steel fret wire.
Why stainless? It's a harder material that takes longer to wear down. Since I wreck frets pretty easily, stainless was the logical choice to go with.
For example, with regular play I can put some fairly big dents in the first 3 to 4 frets of a neck in less than 3 years. And I mean the kind of dents that can't be fixed with a simple leveling. Nope. It's usually the case where I have to either get a new neck or trade out the guitar and get another one.
Generally speaking, if all you have is minor fret wear with 5 years of regular play on any guitar you own, nickel/silver is totally fine to use.
Believe me, if you're a fret-wrecker, you'll know it. Even with a perfectly set up guitar, some guys are just really heavy-handed on the lower frets and dent them right up quick. It happens.
Does string choice affect how long frets last?
Yes and no.
Some strings have more abrasive steel than others. For example, I'm personally convinced that RotoSound strings are fret wreckers and absolutely will not use them. Not on guitar nor bass. When I examine RotoSounds, I can physically see steel imperfections with the naked eye for the unwound strings. I won't go near that brand...
...but it could very well be that when I tried RotoSound, maybe they just had a bad run and may have fixed things up by now. Maybe I just bought Rotos at the wrong time? Totally possible.
Ordinarily, old strings are what wreck frets more than anything else. The non-stainless steel kind, that is.
I have to explain that one a bit.
On the bass guitar, you could keep a stainless steel set on there for 10 years. No, that is not an exaggeration. Some bass players buy one stainless steel set, periodically remove the strings, boil them in water to clean off the grime, then put them right back on the bass afterward. Yes, they really do this, and it works for them.
Guitar players ordinarily don't use stainless steel strings because they have a very shrill sound to them. Great for slide, but not much else. You can see examples of stainless steel strings by D'Addario, La Bella, Fender, Ernie Ball and others right here.
Do I recommend getting them? No, I don't. Like I said, very shrill sound. Great for bass because of their piano-like twang that breaks in real nice, horrible for guitar unless used for slide.
Fresh strings are the best to use to keep your frets from getting wrecked prematurely. If you see rust (i.e. black "lines" on the unwound strings,) put on a fresh set.
Does it make a difference who makes the fret wire?
Dunlop makes frets differently than, say, Jescar does (famous for their EVO gold color fret wire.) Each company makes different decisions on what alloys are used. One company uses more nickel and the other does not. One has a fret that's slighter harder, the other slightly softer.
I'll make it easy for you. If you want the harder stuff that lasts, just get Jescar stainless steel fret wire and call it a day - BUT - and this is a big but - realize that stainless steel frets don't polish up as nicely as nickel/silver does. If you want the shiniest stuff, use nickel/silver. If you'd rather have a fret that lasts longer, get stainless steel.
What wire size do I prefer?
Medium jumbo, followed by jumbo.
My first preference is medium jumbo just because most of the guitars I've owned have had medium jumbo fret wire installed on the neck.
However, my '89 Squier is having stainless jumbo wire installed on it. Interestingly enough, my red '89 Squier does in fact have a 12" fingerboard radius on the neck like a Gibson, so hey, who knows, maybe putting the Fender American Standard size fret wire on it (Fender does use jumbo on modern American Strats) will be a good thing.
If not, I'll get a little more string buzz, and if so, whatever. I'll deal with it. It's my first guitar and it will be nice to have a fresh set of frets on it. She deserves it, no question about that.
Final notes (fret hardness)
The final thing I'll talk about here is fret hardness.
Sometimes you will get a guitar that even with nickel/silver frets just lasts for years and years and years. Other times you will get a guitar where the frets start denting real fast.
Some people say cheap guitars use cheap steel for cheap frets that wear out quick.
All guitar companies have bad runs of guitars with crap frets at times, even for premium American made models. Sometimes the frets sourced for certain years are just total crap.
Your only guaranteed way to get good, long-lasting frets is to:
- Specifically buy a guitar with stainless steel frets on it (presuming the guitar company put the guitar together correctly)
- Install frets yourself (nickel/silver or stainless, doesn't matter since you're doing the install job)
- Order up a neck with stainless frets on it (such as from Warmoth)
- Have a luthier install new frets on your guitar neck
With mass-produced guitars, there's no guarantee the frets will outlast the warranty period at all. And even if the frets do wear out within the warranty period, the warranty won't cover it anyway since it's a "wearable part."
At least with cheap guitars, if the frets wear out it's not a big deal since you didn't put a bunch of money into it.
Lastly, as said above, I'm having my first guitar refretted. It's a cheap Squier, but it sounds amazing and it's my first, so it's worth the repairing/restoring. If you have a guitar you really, really like where it plays and sounds wonderful and the only thing it needs is fresh frets, find a luthier and pay him to refret the guitar. If you feel the guitar is good enough, it's totally worth it.